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Moore case is about Texas values

November 29, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments about whether Bobby James Moore should be executed.

The case has significant implications for Texas’ standards for determining whether a person is mentally disabled, and if that person should be executed. That’s because the Lone Star State is an outlier in its practices — and not in an exemplary way.

Rather than using contemporary medical standards to determine whether a defendant is intellectually disabled, the state relies on a bizarre standard, one that mixes clinical definitions from 1992 and seven nonclinical traits based on fiction. Yes, fiction. It’s known as the “Lennie Standard.” As in, Lennie, the character from John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Not surprisingly, most people don’t meet the Lennie Standard.

Why? As Cornell University law professor John Blume told National Public Radio this August, the Lennie Standard is “based on fiction. It’s really based on stereotype.” And stereotypes, of course, are not accurate. A person with disabilities might be able to perform some tasks, but not others.

Some background: Moore committed murder in 1980, during a botched armed robbery at a convenience store in Houston. Court documents show a history of intellectual disability (as well as severe abuse). His intelligent quotient tests have ranged from 57 to 78.

He failed first grade twice and was repeatedly socially promoted until the ninth grade. At the age of 13, he still did not know how to tell time, or understand subtraction or how a calendar works. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade. Numerous medical professionals have declared him mentally disabled.

This is significant because it fits with the generally agreed upon standards for determining if someone is intellectually disabled. First, the disability existed prior to adulthood. Next, it demonstrably affects a person’s ability to function in the world. Finally, it meets contemporary medical understanding.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that a state’s determination is supposed to be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework,” per court documents.

All other states went this route. The language might differ from one state to another, but the general principles are in agreement. Texas responded to that ruling in a different way, creating the Lennie Standard in 2004.

Tellingly, a state court ruled executing Moore would violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, because he meets contemporary medical definitions of mental retardation.

But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed in 2015, ruling that Texas is prohibited from using contemporary medical standards. Moore must be judged by the Lennie Standard.

What’s peculiar is that legal scholars have noted Texas has no problem using current medical standards to determine intellectual disabilities in other areas of law, such as determining Social Security benefits. As Blume said to NPR, Texas has “carved out this one exemption and added this gloss for capital cases only primarily because the Court of Criminal Appeals doesn’t like” the 2002 Supreme Court decision.

As is the case with many death penalty appeals, this is not really about Moore. He committed murder. He should be punished with life in prison. What’s really on trial are our values. Is it OK for the state to execute the incompetent and mentally disabled? Texans deserve a system that judges felons such as Moore by the best and most current medical and legal standards, not fiction and outdated science.